Shootings of Chicago students prompts push for anti-violence workers at high schools

Street outreach workers appear at the South Shore Cultural Center Thursday, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Brandon Johnson announced an expansion of anti-violence efforts in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

After a succession of fatal shootings of Chicago Public Schools students just after dismissal, there are calls to bring violence prevention workers from the community into schools, even if they have criminal backgrounds.

“The kids that need the most help are being denied the people who could be the most helpful,” said Arne Duncan, former CPS CEO and current managing partner of Chicago CRED, an organization focused on helping ex-offenders change their lives. “So the best resource for them, they are locked away from.”

Duncan said his group has “life coaches,” who help clients navigate the transition away from the streets. He said most of these life coaches have criminal backgrounds, but bringing them into schools “would be a massive step forward.”

Duncan spoke at an event Thursday where community violence intervention groups announced a plan to raise $400 million to try to reduce the numbers of shootings and homicides in Chicago by 50% within five years. Their violence interruption plans involve getting more people with connections to street organizations out into communities so they can mediate gang disputes and pull young people away from crime. 

Most of the people with the connections and stature to do this kind of violence prevention work have criminal records.

State law bans people that have been convicted of a number of crimes, including drug dealing, from working in schools. But with violence touching schools so closely some are wondering whether the laws need to be revisited. 

Hanging over the event was Wednesday afternoon’s shooting of three students leaving Senn High School in the Edgewater neighborhood on the North Side. It comes after a Friday shooting that left two teenagers dead outside their downtown charter school. And less than a week before that, on Jan. 22, another charter school student was killed as he left his South Side school.  

Police presence was increased Thursday as students arrived and were dismissed from schools. Crisis teams also were dispatched to Senn High School. 

At the same time, Mayor Brandon Johnson doubled down on his position that police should not be in schools on a daily basis. He told WBEZ and the Sun-Times this week that he supports ending the controversial program that assigns police to schools. Instead Johnson supports schools looking at safety holistically, from discipline to social-emotional supports. Johnson points to studies that show police in schools leads to the criminalization of student behavior with little evidence that students are safer.

Johnson said he was not rethinking this position in light of recent violence. 

“The policies of old have failed us,” he said. “Why would I go back on my word? Why do I have to change my mind and go back on something that has failed us?”

Garien Gatewood, the deputy mayor of community safety, emphasized how the school district and police department officials speak daily, even on weekends, and that the lines of communication are open. 

But Gatewood said the mayor’s approach is focused on addressing the harm of violence and the root causes. The victim’s families and communities need extra support and services in the wake of these tragedies — something that Gatewood said has not always been offered in the past. 

Gatewood said the city has already talked with some organizations doing violence interruption and prevention about partnering with schools. But the logistics need to be worked out.

“We have a lot of other agencies around the city that understand the role that we can all play in the lives of young folks, and part of our role is pulling them together to make sure we can have better responses,” he said.

In addition to crisis teams, the school district also will reach out to the friends of the students who were shot to try to prevent any future violence, said Jadine Chou, chief of safety and security at CPS. 

She also said the school district will provide Senn with a program called Choose to Change, which offers mentors and group therapy sessions to students who school officials identify as needing support. 

Chou said the school district is open to all kinds of partnerships, adding “Chicago Public Schools can’t do this alone.” But she said the school district must follow the state law, which doesn’t allow people with certain criminal backgrounds in schools. 

She said schools already reach out to organizations that do violence interruption when potential issues come to their attention. Chou added that there is a need for “these types of interventions outside of school, [in] after-school hours.”

Many of the violence prevention workers at Thursday’s event said they could make an impact if they could reach kids inside schools.

Christine Escalara, an outreach worker for the Alliance of Local Service Organizations, said she’s often called to Clemente High School in West Town to help escort students as they leave campus and go home. Like many of the outreach workers, she said the teenagers trust her and her colleagues because they are from the community. 

“So if we were able to be in these schools a little more, it would be more beneficial and helpful,” she said. 

Escalara said police “intimidate kids that are already stuck in survival mode. It makes them turn their backs.” 

Kevin Wicks, an outreach worker for Phalanx Family Services, said if teens are involved in something violent, they wouldn’t turn to the police out of fear that they will be trouble. But the outreach workers can help keep them safe without the threat of criminal punishment.

He said kids also know that outreach workers know what they’re going through and will listen when they tell them to slow down. Many of them, he said, just need someone to pay attention.

“Kids are watching other kids die, and that’s a mental depression on a kid, to watch your friend die,” Wicks said. “People wonder why the kid is snapping because no one’s checking on them, they have no one to talk to.”

Jason Little, the strategic initiatives manager at Chicago CRED, said his organization is seeing kids involved in violence at younger ages, and that is why they need to be in schools. He understands there are “red flags” in terms of criminal backgrounds, but the young men and women he works with have separated themselves from who they once were. 

“We are not saying we are going to come in and do CPS’ job. We are not saying we are going to come in and do CPD’s job,” Little said. “We are saying we need to collaborate.”

Karp covers education for WBEZ.

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